It was just after 10 a.m. as Patti Nishimoto eagerly greeted Waiakea High School’s masked students Tuesday morning as they made their way to their next class.
It was easy to tell she was smiling behind her own mask.
Nishimoto, the student activities coordinator, was excited to see students on campus for the first time in more than a year.
“So excited. I mean, on a scale of one to 10, yeah, I think I’m a 20,” she said with a laugh.
Juniors and seniors returned to the school Tuesday, with sophomores and freshmen returning today and Thursday, respectively. The entire student body will be on campus Friday.
For some public school students, Tuesday marked the first time they’ve had in-person classes since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and abruptly forced students out of classrooms and online during the final quarter of that school year.
Schooling largely remained online for much of the last academic year, although some campuses slowly began reopening to students in varying degrees and capacities.
Waiakea, however, remained virtual for the entirety of the 2020-21 school year, but offered some learning hubs on campus.
“It’s like having two freshman classes, though, because sophomores never came on campus last year,” Waiakea principal Kelcy Koga said Tuesday. “Our seniors, the last time they were on campus, they were sophomores.”
Nishimoto said she’s been working on campus nearly daily since the start of the pandemic.
“It was so strange to be in school with no one, no students. That was just wrong. It felt wrong. It felt strange. … I’m just kind of overwhelmed today, I think, because … we sure missed them,” she said, tearing up.
“We’re so excited to be back in person and see people and hold activities in person and not virtually,” said Brynne Urasaki, 17, who is the Student Government Association vice president.
“But we’re still really on edge and hoping that everyone does their part to not spread COVID,” Matthew Labasan, the Student Government Association president, 17, said. “We’re trying to take the right precautions to have fun activities but still keep everyone safe at the same time.”
Both students said they have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, a key mitigation strategy emphasized by the state Department of Health in guidance for a return to in-person learning.
“Personally, I feel safe because I am vaccinated and we constantly sanitize, (are) always wearing our mask and just trying to stay safe,” Urasaki said.
Labasan said he’s not too worried, but is taking precautions like washing his hands and double-masking.
“It does feel amazing to have students back on campus,” Koga said. “To go an entire school year with no one here — we had staff here, but it’s not the same. It’s a school. We want everybody here. There’s nothing that compares to an in-person education.”
According to Koga, Waiakea has about 1,300 students enrolled this year.
“There’s always concerns when you hear all of the Department of Health guidelines,” he said.
Statistically, Koga said COVID-19 cases are bound to happen in the school, but he’s confident in the protocols and systems in place to quickly mitigate spread of the virus.
“As confident as you can be with 1,300 kids and 200 staff.”
Koga said fewer than five teachers at the school have voiced concerns about the return to face-to-face instruction. A majority of the staff are vaccinated and feel comfortable with that, he said.
“I think as far as the staff is concerned, morale is pretty high, and I think they’re excited just as much as the kids are to have human beings in front of them.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, students sporting new backpacks and masks made their way to their classrooms at Hilo Union School.
Dhonna Calanpoc watched her daughter walk into the school for her first day of first grade.
Calanpoc’s daughter spent her kindergarten year learning online at home and was completely new to in-person schooling.
“I’m kind of nervous, because this is her first time really going to school, and I was hoping to walk her to class, so I know she got there,” Calanpoc said. “Everything is new to her, and it’ll be hard to get used to this for both of us.”
Other parents were excited to see their children go back to school.
“I definitely want her to be back in-person,” Tiera Charles said about her daughter, who is entering second grade and excited to return to school. “I think at this age, it’s really important for kids to be in class where they can learn hands-on.
“She’s been really looking forward to going back to school and is excited to see some old friends and teachers,” Charles said. “This will also be a lot easier for me to work and will open up time I haven’t had.”
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